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Cover Stories Series 2013> Chinese Movies Threatened by Hollywood> Archive
UPDATED: June 11, 2012 NO. 24 JUNE 14, 2012
Tasting China
A documentary on Chinese food recalls memories of culinary traditions
By Bai Shi

LOCAL DELICACY: An image from the documentary shows a Shanghai delicacy called steamed buns with crab (FILE)

A documentary chronicling the history and culture of Chinese food called A Bite of China rose to fame nationwide soon after its debut on China Central Television (CCTV), the country's biggest national TV station, on May 14. The seven-episode series averaged a rating of 0.5 percent, surpassing other TV programs aired in prime time.

The show is attracting food buffs as well as a general audience, becoming a popular search topic on the Internet with up to 10,000 clicks per hour. On discussion forums and micro-blogging sites, rave reviews of the show from ravenous viewers pour in. Weight loss diets are put on hold as tempted TV audiences admire mouth-watering local dishes from across China.

In addition to high ratings, A Bite of China ignites people's passion for the local delicacies showcased in the documentary. Catering services and grocery stores have seen a spike in business following each episode.

Online food sales have surged since the show was aired. Taobao, China's largest online shopping site, received a flood of orders for local food like Wuhan duck neck and Jinhua ham. According to site traffic statistics, Taobao's snack category had over 4.5 million hits in seven days between May 14 and 20 when the documentary was shown.

A Bite of China caught on even in the international market. During the 65th Festival De Cannes in April, many foreign distributors signed contracts with CCTV to purchase the documentary at the film festival's trade fair.

Zhang Lin, Director of the Overseas Market Department at China International Television Corp., said the outpouring of interest is rare for a Chinese documentary. "A Bite of China received many inquiries from foreign TV companies. At present, we are closing the deal with South Korean and Japanese purchasers. Some European distributors are also negotiating with us."

A bite of success

Few TV programs on Chinese cuisines have received the wide praise given to A Bite of China.

"Its success can be attributed largely to three points: good theme, good timing and good job," said Chen Xiaoqing, the director of the documentary.

"First, Chinese food is famous for its long history and great diversity around the world," Chen said. "Second, CCTV offers a special time slot in the evening for documentaries. Third, and most importantly, the production team did an excellent job with the documentary."

The documentary's production team began work in March last year. In order to cover the great diversity of Chinese food ranging from haute cuisine to local delicacies and snacks, the crew traveled around China from the East China Sea to the west Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and recorded details of diverse people sharing stories about their experiences with food.

"Generally speaking, there are 800 scenes at least for each 50-minute episode," Chen said. From the many hours of footage they craft a narrative highlighting the "deeper aspects of food," he continued. "We try to show great respect to the custom and culture passed on by our ancestors."

Beyond the colorful images of local foods, the sophisticated design brings a fresh perspective to the documentary. While most shows about Chinese cuisine focus only on the preparation process in the kitchen, A Bite of China offers broad and deep insights into the geographical, historical and cultural dimensions of what Chinese people eat, said Bian Jiang, adviser of the documentary and Deputy Secretary General of China Cuisine Association.

"The documentary not only shows how to cook abalones, but also depicts the hard work people put into breeding and acquiring abalones near the seaside," said Bian. "Compared with the final product, the complicated preparation process and sweat put into it by the people can be more impressive for audiences."

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